Establishing a Culture of Mindfulness in Elementary School
Providing opportunities for students and staff to participate in wellness practices can start with one dedicated day each week.
With fewer Covid-19 restraints, teachers and students returned for the 2021–22 school year and worked to reestablish best practices and norms. At my school, staff members felt a building-wide need to review social skills, increase emotional support, and add mindfulness strategies into our weekly morning meeting practices.
When we discussed our plans, a teacher shared that her children’s school had “Wellness Wednesday” activities. This inspired us to shape our building goals similarly, and our own Wellness Wednesdays were established as an intentional day each week for the entire building to take a breath, find moments of mindfulness, slow down, reset, and recharge.
How to Implement Student Wellness Support
As the school counselor, I acted as the creator and contact for the Wellness Wednesday initiative. I communicated wellness information in a shared document so that it remained in a central location that teachers could bookmark for easy access. I maintained the document and uploaded new ideas throughout the school year.
Weekly practice: The shared document contained a bank of mindfulness practices that ranged anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. Ideas included a breathing exercise, a mindfulness freeze dance, a gratitude exercise, and mindful coloring. Each activity and exercise was presented in a Google Slide with live links in it for all staff members to access. Teachers and students were asked to choose one practice from the bank to complete as an entire class each Wednesday.
Monthly practice: As well as the weekly mindfulness practice, the second Wednesday of each month included an “Extended Wellness Wednesday” opportunity. In preparation, staff observations of current student needs were shared with the counselor, administration, leadership team, and invested staff members, who in turn chose each topic. This allowed a universal message and practice to occur once a month for all students.
During Extended Wellness Wednesday, the entire school began the day via video, with a collective breathing practice and a common SEL topic led by the school counselor. This video encouraged classroom discussion and application.
I utilized picture books to support each area of focus for the monthly announcements. Here are some examples:
- Happy: A Beginner’s Book of Mindfulness, by Nicola Edwards, supported the benefits of mindfulness.
- Thankful, by Elaine Vickers, was a springboard for discussion during gratitude practice.
- The Boy With Big, Big Feelings, by Britney Winn Lee, encouraged students to identify feelings and discuss self-regulation.
- Be You!, by Peter H. Reynolds, gave students the opportunity to celebrate their individual strengths and identities.
- A Little Spot of Flexible Thinking, by Diane Alber, promoted adaptation to change.
- I Am Human, by Susan Verde, provided excellent examples of empathy and compassion for others.
- I Am Courage, by Susan Verde, allowed students to apply positive affirmations.
Each follow-up activity for the monthly topic lasted 8 to 10 minutes. Many of the extension activities were created by adapting information learned from social and emotional learning (SEL) sites or were sparked through creative counseling techniques. For example, after reading The Boy With the Big, Big Feelings, students practiced the social thinking skill of identifying the size of the problem. Using a chart, students used sticky notes to write a problem and placed them on the chart of reactions that matched the size of the problem. Based on their responses, mindfulness practices were offered to support emotional regulation for students to use.
For gratitude practice during a monthly November session, classroom teachers were given a gratitude scavenger hunt for students to complete. Students had about 10 minutes to find everyday moments to show gratitude during the hunt. Students chose from a list of categories to focus on, such as “something that makes me happy” and “something useful to me in the classroom.”
As an extension activity, each student wrote one response of gratitude on a strip of paper to add to a classroom paper chain, which served as a visual reminder for the entire school year. Each SEL activity that students engaged in provided an opportunity for mindful practice, teacher-student rapport, and building community.
How to Implement Staff Wellness Support
The staff mindfulness opportunities gave space and celebrated time for adults to try a practice. We wanted our teachers to have the same positive experiences as our students. Mindfulness practices aid in creating a calm, safe, and healthy classroom environment for everyone. Students and staff flourish when they’re in a learning space that values relationships, healthy mindset, empathy, and compassion.
Monthly practice: During Extended Wellness Wednesday, adult extension ideas were provided in a staff slide in the shared wellness document. Ideas were intended to support staff well-being and not as an added responsibility. These monthly scheduled opportunities, in addition to the weekly classroom practices, encouraged staff to enjoy each other, share, feel cared for, and pause.
A small team of volunteer staff members, including the building principal, administrative assistant, and counselor, transformed our conference room. This space reflected the monthly topic and sparked creativity and play. If students worked on finding their joy that day, then the staff did as well. Examples of room transformations included a small relaxation corner, a chance for staff to paint feelings with watercolors, and a Bring Your Own Mug (BYOM) day for staff hot chocolate and coffee provided by the building principal.
Additionally, students and staff were encouraged to sport “wellness wear” and spirit shirts to help provide an added layer of comfort. Occasional casual dress isn’t new to education; however, for our staff, a small shift in the daily professional attire felt like a welcome, enjoyable change. Teachers looked forward to midweek casual dress day to regroup and reset comfortably. They felt more playful, calm, and light.
Monitor the School Community’s Wellness Response
The positive staff reaction was enlightening and contagious and gave everyone a chance to catch their breath at a time when educational stressors were difficult to navigate. The fact that a wellness time was encouraged for staff, as well as for students, contributed to an optimistic building atmosphere. With so many unknowns in our school community during the pandemic, we wanted to find simple, accessible, and predictable ways to settle our minds and bodies. It was important that we worked through new norms together and with as much understanding and grace as possible.
As pandemic restrictions loosened, we still found great value and necessity in our wellness practice. Direct teacher involvement created a partnership with staff and students, and as a result, we plan to continue Wellness Wednesdays for the 2022–23 school year. On evaluation, every grade level and specialist group identified Wellness Wednesdays as a positive outcome for students and staff. It provided an excellent opportunity for us to embrace our school community. Our hope is that these strategies are habit-forming for all and become ingrained daily practices.